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Indian Luck & a Native Painter on Death Row

A graduation present led David Cornsilk on an unexpected journey with quite the ending.

My Cherokee friend David Cornsilk is lucky in many ways, but there’s no better example of that than the task of finding a graduation present for his daughter, Alayna Farris, who has survived the exquisite torture that is law school. Going about this happy task, he found a piece of Indian art that he liked and thought she would like at a Cherokee-owned flea market in Muskogee.

A colorful painting of three stickball players was signed only “J. Harjo 97”. The athleticism in the rendering suggested somebody who had seen stickball played, or even played it. Cornsilk’s description: “vibrant colors and great action.” The artist would probably remain a mystery, because in Oklahoma “Harjo” narrows the search down about as much as “Jones.”

He showed the painting by the unknown artist to his daughter, who concurred in his judgment, and so he set out to get it framed properly for presentation. Removing the paper backing revealed the name of the painting, Stickball Fury, and the full name of the artist, Jerald Harjo, along with a series of numbers.

Running the full name in a search engine unraveled a tragic story. The number was Harjo’s Oklahoma Department of Corrections identifier and he produced Stickball Fury while on death row. He was arrested in 1988 and killed by Oklahoma in 2001.

Tara Houska. Courtesy Jason Daniels.

His crime was attempting to steal a truck belonging to 64-year-old Ruth Porter. The victim, by all accounts, was a good person with many friends, including lots of children at the school where she worked as a secretary. She caught Harjo, who was drunk, looking for the keys. They struggled and he suffocated her.

Harjo was an alcoholic from an alcoholic family, born with fetal alcoholism syndrome. Outside of his constant struggles with alcohol addiction, there was nothing in his background to predict that he would kill anybody.

He was a full-blood Seminole. One of the more ironic things in his trial was his lawyer’s opinion that Harjo “could not verbalize his feelings.” He had written a letter expressing remorse that his lawyer wanted to read into the record, but the court did not allow it. Perhaps he did have verbal limitations, but his art communicated better than most people do.

Cornsilk did some investigation and found that Harjo was essentially in solitary confinement on death row. He saw the guards and the occasional family member who would bring him art supplies. Stickball Fury was sold in the prison craft shop for two dollars, paid into his prison commissary account.

Asked how he felt about the way this story unraveled, Cornsilk told me, “I wasn't sure I wanted to give a gift with that kind of provenance, but realized quickly that it was an opportunity to remember Harjo's murder victim, Mrs. Porter and Oklahoma's murder victim, Harjo himself."

So far, he has been unable to account for how the painting traversed the time and distance from 1997 in the state prison at McAlester to 2016 in the flea market at Muskogee.

I told you David Cornsilk is a lucky man. Jerald Harjo, not so much.